Shifrah and Puah Take a Knee for Justice!

This past Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world began reading the Book of Exodus. The story begins, of course, with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt... the paradigmatic example of oppression. In Chapter 1, we quickly encounter two unlikely heroes: the midwives Shifrah and Puah who, according to the text, "feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but rather let the baby boys live."

This past Shabbat, Jewish communities around the world began reading the Book of Exodus. The story begins, of course, with the Israelites enslaved in Egypt... the paradigmatic example of oppression. In Chapter 1, we quickly encounter two unlikely heroes: the midwives Shifrah and Puah who, according to the text, "feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but rather let the baby boys live."

Shifrah and Puah are models for us of what good civil disobedience can look like. They take a huge personal risk in defying the Pharaoh's immoral orders, but they have the courage to do so precisely because they believe that they answer to a higher moral authority. As women in their ancient society, they weren't in a position to issue a competing decree to Pharaoh's, but they did have the power to make change happen by working in a grassroots way and teaming up with other women. 

Their act of civil disobedience, of course, changes the course of history.  Because of them, Moses is born and lives; the Israelites are freed from slavery; and all of humanity witnesses the transformative potential of redemption.

Thinking about this text this week, it's hard not to hear many contemporary echoes. Oprah's speech promising that "a new day is on the horizon" offers us a glimpse into the redeemed world that could come into being as women defy expectations and band together with cries of "me too" and "time's up." Debate about the fate of El Salvadorans, DACA recipients, and other immigrants continues in our society... raising critical questions about the oppression that comes with separating families and calling on us to hear their cries as "cries of affliction." And, this coming Monday, we will mark MLK Day, remembering the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr, who drew explicitly on the biblical story of the Exodus as he painted a picture of what a redeemed American society, free of racism and oppression, might someday look like.

This is a great week to reflect on the themes of civil disobedience, morality, and visions of justice. If you are free on Monday, please plan to join us for the Seattle-wide MLK Rally at 11am in the Garfield High School gymnasium. This year the theme is "Take a Knee for Justice!," and I suspect that if Shifrah and Puah were still alive, they would be there too, kneeling alongside us to make a statement about our society's need to address systemic racism.

In hopes that -- as we continue to read the Book of Exodus over the coming weeks -- we can also help to move the dial in our own society from slavery to freedom!

Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum